Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Odds and Ends

Hello all. I’m back from my trip to Houston and wanted to write a quick “odds and ends” column about the trip, the past year of Armstrong releases and what to look forward to in 2008. First, the Houston visit was mainly to visit my wife’s best friend, who had a baby just last month. But I did manage to get my wife, her friend AND the baby to come along as I visited Jewel Brown on December 26. I had already interviewed Jewel at length over the phone for my book but this was the first time I had ever met her in person. She’s a dynamo, full of life and wisdom and you can’t help but get swept away by her personality. One of the highlights for me was watching her watching some very rare footage I had brought of her performing with the All Stars in 1964. She got such a kick out of watching her old self, joking about her Asian-looking eye makeup and how she had her hair pressed and not permed!

And though it wasn’t a formal interview, she still gave me some good stories. As always, I’d like to save them for my book, but I will share this one. She remembered a time shortly after “Dolly” hit that one of the band members (she wouldn’t specify) lit up a “special cigarette.” Pops looked at him and said, “No, man, we can’t do that shit no more. We done got too big!” Anyway, here’s a picture from my visit with Jewel. I couldn’t help but notice a bottle of Swiss Kriss on her desk. No, she never took it—not even with Pops—but she kept it as a souvenir and I had to include it in the shot (though, no, I am not 11 feet tall and I don't have naturally red eyes):

Photobucket

Moving on, 2007 was a decent year for Armstrong C.D. releases. Of course, the one outstanding release was Storyville’s four-disc In Scandinavia box, which I’ve written much about. As compiled by the oracle of Armstrong, Gösta Hägglöf, this has become, to me, an essential document of the All Stars and it’s a bargain to boot (available for as low as $27.94 on Amazon).

2007 also saw the release of Armstrong’s Monterey Jazz Festival set from 1958, which I have also written about in a past blog. It’s a fun night and a great show but it also gives the listener the opportunity to hear Armstrong battling with his chops. You can hear the pain and see how he had to pace himself to make it through the night, but he puts on a helluva show and he never stops going for the high notes. For a better picture of Armstrong’s playing in 1958, check out Live In North Bay Ontario, available on worldsrecords.com. It’s become one of my favorite live All Stars shows because Pops is in peak form throughout, fielding requests for different material such as “Long Gone” and coming up with new variations on pieces like “Muskrat Ramble” and “You Can Depend On Me.”

In my last “Odds and Ends” column from November, I wrote about the “Essential Jazz Classics” label finally releasing Armstrong’s complete output with the Dukes of Dixieland. The three-disc set came out in November and I quickly swiped up a copy.

I was thrilled to finally have all this material in one place, including the alternates, but my enthusiasm soon went down the drain. First off, “Wolverine Blues” is still edited, as it was on the Blue Moon disc of about ten years ago. This infuriated me because it became quite clear that the Essential Jazz Classics people just copied the Blue Moon discs I had listened to for years, right down to the botched “Wolverine Blues.” Also, when it came to the alternates, they tacked them on at the end of disc two and disc three, keeping the masters separate. Naturally, the first thing I did was reorganize them on my Itunes so I could hear the master and alternate together since Pops did so much improvising on these dates. And as far as the alternates go, they just transferred them straight from the Chiarscruo LPs, not offering any remastering in process. So, I already had the Blue Moon discs and I already transferred the alternates to CD without using any remastering so basically I spent $30 for a nice cover photo.



Oh well, if you don’t have this material, make the plunge as it’s essential latter-day Armstrong and it is nice to have it together in one set…one half-assed set.

Better news came from the Swiss TCB label, which issued an All Stars concert from Zurich, Switzerland from October 18, 1949. The sound quality is great, everyone in the band sounds wonderful and Pops is particularly inspired, coming up with all sorts of new ideas on the likes of “That’s a Plenty” and “Royal Garden Blues.” Even “Velma’s Blues” gets a rare encore and “The Hucklebuck” turns into an extended blues jam session, with everyone soloing (Barney dipping into his “C Jam” bag…remember when “C Jam” incorporated “The Hucklebuck” for a brief time?). Unfortunately, TCB shuffled up the order, which makes no sense since Armstrong was the master of pacing a stage show (Armstrong’s announced “opener” of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” doesn’t appear until track five!). Also, the interesting liner notes aren’t attributed to anyone in particular and some of the photos passed off as being from this visit, actually come from a later Switzerland visit from October 1955. Oh well, the music’s still great. If you’d like to preview it, some of the tracks were aired on a Swiss Radio show. Go to the following website and click the flashing icon next to the date, Mardi 13 November 2007
http://www.rsr.ch/espace-2/jazzz/selectedD...3/11/2007#mardi

Now, because I’m a freak, I paid the extra money and ordered it from a UK website so I could listen to it as soon as possible, but it looks like it will be available in the United States on February 12. It can be pre-ordered from cduniverse.com for $12.65. Check it out:



There was nothing to report on from the DVD front but YouTube continued to be a constant delight, providing plenty of rare Armstrong clips throughout the year. Here’s a recent one from my good friend, Ingo Ruppert, Armstrong and the All Stars, in their prime, playing Cole Porter’s “Blow Gabriel Blow” from a 1956 Ford Star Jubilee tribute to Porter. The band features Armstrong, Trummy Young, Edmond Hall, Squire Gersh and a relentlessly swinging Barrett Deems. Enjoy!



Looking forward to 2008, the biggest news concerning Armstrong seems to be the hopeful release of Armstrong’s 1937 Fleishmann Yeast Shows on the Music Masters label. Michael Cogswell and Dan Morgenstern have been telling me about this possible release for two years now but there’s been a tremendous amount of hiccups along the way. However, the last time I visited Michael, he told me they had the broadcasts sounding better than ever and Dan recently told Marc Myers’s JazzWax blog that he is currently finishing the liner notes for the set, which will also contain some treasures from Armstrong’s private tapes. This should be a huge release and I just hope it gets the same amount of respect given by the jazz world to recent discoveries by Monk, Miles, Mingus, Bird and Diz.

On a sad note, we also said goodbye to Armstrong’s long-time drummer Danny Barcelona this year. Barcelona was like an invisible man to most jazz historians. Picture being with Louis Armstrong’s band night-after-night for 13 years…and never being asked for an interview! So many books and articles were written on Armstrong but Danny lived with his wife and family in California, playing golf and enjoying life. Finally, with the help of Lewis Porter, I located Danny in 2005 and struck up an over-the phone friendship that resulted in hours of interviews, birthday phone calls and the sending of rare performances on DVD and C.D. to his home. Danny passed away at the age of 77 on April 1, 2007 and I miss him tremendously.



And as the whole world knows, Oscar Peterson died just last week. As a pianist, I worshipped at O.P.’s feet and I treasure the two occasions I saw him perform live at Birdland in 2004 and 2006. I regret not having had the opportunity to interview Peterson since he didn’t even mention Armstrong’s name in his otherwise terrific autobiography. I’ve always loved Peterson as an accompanist and he always gave Armstrong wonderful support on their three albums together (two with Ella). Please take out Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson and enjoy this marvelous, neglected album as a way of remembering Peterson. In fact, I got to do that in a third-hand way during my Houston trip. I found out Oscar did and two days later, visited Jewel Brown. While having lunch at a Whattaburger that was playing a ceaseless mix of country hits, all of a sudden “Let’s Fall In Love” from that album appeared from over the loudspeaker. At first, I felt sad, but damn, it’s such a joyous track that I couldn’t help but smiling and nodding as Pops picked up his horn and Oscar began backing him so wonderfully. Call it a sign, call it creepy, call it whatever, but for me, it was a pretty great moment (and the burger was good, too).

Well, that’s all I have for now. As for me, I’m looking forward to another year of keeping this blog going and meeting more and more wonderful Armstrong fans from around the world. As always, please e-mail at dippermouth@msn.com if you have want to talk Pops, or just leave a comment on the blog. On April 16, I’ll be showing some rare footage of Pops at the Institute of Jazz Studies (which footage? Come and find out!), so that’ll be exciting, I hope.

But it’s New Year’s Eve and before I set out for playing my five-hour gig tonight, I must spend some of it with Pops and fortunately, I have some live Armstrong broadcasts from New Year’s Eves past. So which one do I choose? New Year’s Eve 1953 from Yokohama, Japan? New Year’s Eve 1954 from the Down Beat in San Francisco? New Year’s Eve 1962 from the Coconut Grove in Hollywood? So much good music to choose from but you can’t go wrong as long as it’s Pops. Happy New Year!

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Very Satchmo Christmas!

As promised, today’s entry will focus on the six Christmas records Armstrong made for Decca in the 1950s. And when I say records, I don’t mean long-playing discs but rather, six three-minute singles. It might seem odd that someone who brought more joy to the world than Santa Claus would have so few yuletide classics in his discography, but alas that’s the case. In fact, Armstrong didn’t get around to recording his first Christmas song until 1952, unless, of course, you count Armstrong’s two versions of “Santa Claus Blues” from 1924 and 1925. I can’t post links to MP3s of these songs or I’d probably get thrown off the Internet, but five of the six songs have appeared in pretty uncreative YouTube videos and I’ll be sharing those along the way in case you’ve never heard them.

When Decca finally corralled Armstrong into the studio to record some Christmas cheer, they gave him first-class treatment by backing him with the lush arrangements of Gordon Jenkins. Jenkins’s sentimental string and voices sound revived Armstrong’s recording career with the 1949 hit “Blueberry Hill.” By the early 1950s, Jenkins was a veritable recording superstar. Anything with his name on it sold tremendously so it made sense for Decca to pair him with label stars like Peggy Lee and Armstrong. On September 22, 1952, Armstrong and Jenkins teamed up for their fourth session together. On one of their sessions, from February 6, 1951 Jenkins jettisoned his strings and turned in some very fine small-big band arrangements but for the 1952 session, the strings were the whole show on the Christmas number, though current All Stars Bob McCracken, Marty Napoleon, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole were in the studio band that day (as was guitarist Art Ryerson, who would do many post-“Hello, Dolly” sessions with Pops in the 60s).

Both of the Jenkins Christmas numbers are unusually low-key. They feature no trumpet and no surges of emotion or anything. They’re very sober but the best word to describe them has to be “warm.” Pops is at his most tender, singing as if he’s whispering a loving lullaby to a small child. “White Christmas” is up first and, of course, was property of Armstrong’s friend and disciple, Bing Crosby. From the opening seconds, we know we’re in Gordon Jenkins country. “White Christmas” demonstrates that many of our best-loved Christmas songs feature quite a range of notes and you can hear Pops stretch here and there, but I always loved his tenor voice—as well as that basso profundo he would break out when necessary. Both are needed on “White Christmas,” which finds Pops reaching for a high D on “the ones” to the C an octave lower on “children.” On the final “be white,” Armstrong goes down to a low B on the coincidental word “be.” Where you’d expect a scat break or a “oh babe,” Pops lays out, leaving the gaps to be filled by Jenkins’s beautiful strings. After a brief string interlude, Armstrong reenters with the final eight bars, featuring, I think, some of his most touching singing. You can hear him smiling as he sings “and bright.” Again, he goes way down for that final “white,” holding it for an impressive amount of time. Very pretty stuff. On YouTube, someone posted this version of “White Christmas” over what looks like a screensaver graphic. Don’t stare or you’ll go blind, but please enjoy the music:



“Winter Wonderland” is up next and it’s more of the same. Though most performers do this one at an uptempo, Armstrong and Jenkins give it the same gentle ballad treatment as “White Christmas.” Again, Pops rarely deviates from the melody but he doesn’t have to, he’s singing it so sweetly. Am I weird for actually feeling warmed by the way Pops sings “as we dream by the fire”? Jenkins goes back to the bridge for another one of his trademark sounds. Marty Napoleon plays the melody in single notes an octave lower than you’d expect. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but hey, this was popular music in 1952 and it gave Jenkins an identity. Pops reenters for the final eight with a cute extended coda. Armstrong repeats the word “walking” while the pizzicato strings “walk” gingerly behind him. Finally, Armstrong unleashes a little bit of scat and the record comes to a mellow conclusion.

Don’t worry, though. If Jenkins’s Christmas records make you a little sleepy and ready to curl up by the fire, here comes Toots Camarata’s Commanders to violently wake you up, visions of Ed Grady’s cymbals ringing in your head. I’ve written about it before in my entries on “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” and “The Gypsy” and it bears repeating: Armstrong’s October 22, 1953 Decca session with The Commanders has to be one of the greatest dates he ever did in his entire career. The Commanders were a ferocious studio band co-led by arranger Camarata and drummer Grady (I believe there’s a new C.D. out that collects their entire Decca output, including the Armstrong session). They were brass heavy—three trumpets, four trombones and only two reeds—and featured a peerless rhythm section propelled by Carmen Mastren’s rhythm guitar and Grady’s earth-shattering big band drumming. The October session began with two Christmas songs and both are a lot of fun. After trying out a few standards on the Jenkins sessions, Decca gave Armstrong a few novelties to cut up on and he does just that, infusing these two trite, silly songs with such enthusiasm that they’ve in turn had a shelf life of over 50 years of being listened to and enjoyed.

“‘Zat You Santa Claus,” written by Jack Fox, was the fist one up. Here’s a YouTube video of it…don’t worry, you’re not going crazy; it’s the same second-and-a-half of animation for three minutes!



Right off the bat, you can hear that Decca gave their sound effects man some extra work on the date and the record starts off with howling winds and jingle bells. Grady’s drums “knock” on the door (how often did he have to change his snare head?), Pops asks the title question and we’re off, the reeds falling into a standard descending minor vamp. The lyrics are back in the “Old Man Mose” mold as Pops, frightened by the outside noises (cue the sound effects guy), hopes it’s Santa Claus making that racket and not someone sinister. The song does have a great bridge and the Commanders swing through it easily. The lyrics really are kind of goofy, but man, Pops sounds like he’s having a ball, which in turn, spreads to the listener. After one chorus, the band takes over, trading four bars with Pops and playing with such force, it threatens to become the most badass Christmas song around. Pops’s vocal on the trades grows more nervous and frantic, adding more fun to the proceedings. But perhaps the highlight of the record comes during the coda when a clearly petrified Armstrong pleads, “Please, a-please, a-pity my knees!” I love the way he sings that “please.” The song ends with a big ending and after another “knock” from the drums, Pops yells, “That’s him all right,” while more sound effects take us out. It’s not “White Christmas,” but it’s very atmospheric and it’s easy to get swept away by Pops’s vocal.

Next up was “Cool Yule,” lyrics and music by comedian and television talk show pioneer Steve Allen. Due to its use in a few recent movies, “Cool Yule” has probably become Armstrong’s best-known Christmas recording. During my 50 trips to the mall this season, it’s sometimes hard to hear the piped in Christmas music, but man, that Armstrong horn during the bridge always manages to cut through the noise! Allen’s trademark sense of humor infuses the lyrics with all sorts of funny psuedo-hip references and Pops again, sounds like he’s having a ball. On YouTube, someone juxtaposed the audio of the song with cartoon images of a Pixar film. The images have nothing to do with the song, but at lease “Cool Yule” comes through loud and clear. Check it out:



The song begins with more jingle bells before the band enters with a sprightly shuffle beat—wait a minute, is this Louie Prima or Louis Armstrong? The changes are fairly simple: “rhythm changes” for 16 bars, then a modulation for more “rhythm changes” in the bridge, kind of like Count Basie’s “Easy Does It.” Only the second half of the bridge doesn’t have “Rhythm,” as it’s punctuated by giant accents by the band on two and four. Again, Pops sings wonderfully but dig that band. Every drum hit, every brass punch, every note of the instrumental interlude…it’s so precise, so explosive, so swinging. I wish Armstrong made a dozen albums with the Commanders. After eight bars from the band, Armstrong picks up his horn for the first time during the session and it’s a preview of the tremendous blowing that was to be the hallmark of the date. Though the song has nothing to do with the blues, Pops instills his entire solo with more blue notes than you might expect. He gets downright funky with some of his note choices and I can never refrain from giving a “Yeah,” when he gets into that bridge. The highlight of the trumpet solo comes in the bridge when plays the melody phrase like a human being, then skyrockets an octave higher to play it again, ending it on a high concert D. After the vocal, Pops still has time to sing another entire chorus and he does so with even more enthusiasm than the first time, especially on the bridge (and listen to Grady on the final A section). Pops legitimately breaks himself up by yelling “Cool Yule” at the end and if you’re not smiling, you’re surname must be Scrooge. But as much fun as “Cool Yule” is, it’s also responsible for this:



Yikes.

Anyway, Decca wasn’t finished yet and two years later, on September 8, 1955, they brought Armstrong in to record two more Christmas songs, this time backed by a studio band arranged and conducted by the great Benny Carter. This has become one of those forgotten Decca sessions, never reissued on C.D. by the label itself but it is available on the Ambassador label’s Moments to Remember disc, which collects all of Armstrong’s Christmas work for the Decca, the entire Commanders session and other odds and ends that are hard to find on compact disc or Itunes. Carter wrote a great arrangement for Armstrong on The Platters’s “Only You” and Armstrong manages to sound quite tender on the Four Lads hit, “Moments to Remember.”

The first Christmas song that day was Dick Sherman and Joe Van Winkle’s “Christmas In New Orleans.” Carter’s arrangement begins with a hardened “Jingle Bells” quote that sounds like it belongs in an episode of Dragnet (remember, Carter was doing a lot of film work at the time). It soon settles into a gentle two-beat that really works for this song. The lyrics are almost a waste of time with their references to stuff like a “Dixieland Santa Claus,” but as always, Pops sounds like the happiest guy in the world. And how could he not? He loved Christmas and he loved New Orleans so any song that combined the two, even with dopey lyrics, was bound to inspire him. What’s truly inspired, though, is the trumpet solo. The tune starts off kind of like “Basin Street Blues” before it goes its own way but the changes obviously had enough meat for Armstrong to sink his chops into. This isn’t one of those grandiose high-note extravaganzas; however it is a good time to appreciate Armstrong’s rhythmic mastery. It’s one of those solos that I always enjoyed but never really devoted 100% attention to until an afternoon I spent in Joe Muranyi’s house. Muranyi recorded “Christmas In New Orleans” for his Jazzology C.D., Joe Muranyi With The New Orleans Real Low-Down. For the disc, he transcribed Armstrong’s solo to be played in unison by his clarinet, Duke Heitger’s trumpet and Tom Baker’s tenor sax. You get so used to hearing horns playing unison lines on bop heads and the like, but not on Armstrong solos and all of a sudden, this solo that I kind of took for granted, became a whole new thing. While listening to it with me, Muranyi said, “It’s tough to notate this part. I worked so hard on it. What you do is, I did it and then I put it away. I mean, I had done it maybe two or three years before this and when I took it out again and refined it, you keep finding little things. It’s not easy. It’s interesting to hear it in this context. It sounds more complex than when he plays it.” It really does. Courtesy of YouTube again, someone filmed a radio while it played “Christmas In New Orleans,” seemingly a waste of video, but the song comes through nicely.



And after listening to the complexity of Armstrong’s “Christmas In New Orleans” solo don’t forget to pick up Muranyi’s C.D. by going to http://www.jazzology.com/item_detail.php?id=JCD-366.

For the final track on the date, Decca reached back and picked “Christmas Night In Harlem,” written by Mitchell Parish and Raymond Scott for the “Blackbirds of and 1934 and memorably recorded by Paul Whiteman with a vocal by Jack Teagarden and Johnny Mercer. Carter’s arrangement begins with another Christmas quote—Billy Kyle playing the beginning to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”—before the horns punch out a descending line that reminds me of a Ray Charles record (I think I’m thinking of “Greenback Dollar Bill”). Armstrong sings the first chorus harmlessly—it’s a pretty repetitive melody and he does his best with it. Carter’s arrangement swings after the vocal and you can hear Barney Bigard holding a high note. This was Bigard’s next-to-last session with the All Stars as he would be replaced by Edmond Hall in a matter of weeks. Armstrong’s trumpet solo is curiously low-key. He more or less sticks to playing the melody in the middle register. Naturally, the Armstrong sound makes it worth listening to, but he doesn’t really blow with any force until the last eight bars. It’s a fine enough solo but I think that Pops could have maybe used one more take to wail a little more. After the low-key solo, Pops returns to sing the bridge, which features a very funny moment. Armstrong sings, “Everyone will be all lit up,” and laughs to himself, “lit up” clearly having a different meaning to him than most. He swings the lyric on the final A section, boiling it down to one note, but the arrangement is now too polite; where’s Ed Grady’s drums to wake things up? The highlight of the record is Pops’s eloquent scatting and singing as the record fades. A charming record, but not my favorite Louis Christmas song. Once again, someone used it on YouTube over a montage of scenes of Harlem and lindy-hoppers. Skip the visuals, but enjoy the song:



And that ends this tour of Louis Armstrong’s Christmas recordings for Decca. Of course, Armstrong wasn’t completely done recording yuletide music as in 1970, he performed “Here Is My Heart For Christmas” for RCA. And Armstrong’s very last recording is a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” that is quite charming (and also available to download online). But those will be the subject for future years. In the meantime, I’m leaving tonight to spend a week in Houston, where I hope to meet Armstrong’s last vocalist Jewel Brown. When I return, I’m going to tackle a very significant question poised by “John from D.C.” in my “Velma’s Blues” entry: where to begin with Armstrong’s 1950s recordings? Where do I begin with an answer!? But until then, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Holiday and (you know it), a Cool Yule!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Song of the Islands

Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra
Recorded January 24, 1930
Track Time 3:31
Written by Charles E. King
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Otis Johnson, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpets; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Albert Nicholas, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Teddy Hill, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano, vibes; Will Johnson, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums; 3 unknown, violin
Originally released on Okeh 41375
Currently available on CD: Volume four of the JSP Hot Five and Hot Seven series has it, as does volume six of Columbia’s old Armstrong series (St. Louis Blues). It’s also available on about a hundred other discs!
Available on Itunes? Yes

With Christmas fast approaching, I might as well begin with, as Bing Crosby once sung, “Mele Kalikimaka,” which is Hawaiian for “Merry Christmas” (don’t just believe Bing; the Andrews Sisters were in on it, too). The reason for the Hawaiian greeting? Because today’s entry will deal with Charles E. King’s 1915 opus, “Song of the Islands,” which on some releases gets the subtitle, “Na Lei O Hawaii.” Now, I don’t speak Hawaiian, but I do believe that that must be Hawaiian for “Song of the Islands.” Pretty bright am I, eh?

I have no idea how this song wound up at a Louis Armstrong session, but after hearing the end results, I’m not complaining (though I wouldn’t be surprised if The Polynesians recorded “Dippermouth Blues” by accident that day…). Hawaiian music must have been on the upswing when Armstrong recorded the song in 1930, as the sheet music for the then-14-year-old song was reissued in 1929. Here’s a copy of this artifact, courtesy of eBay (please, no bidding):



Now, in writing these little entries, I usually like to do a little research on the song and the songwriter. So who was Charles E. King? A Google search turned up some information on the songwriter from—no joke—Hana Hou, “The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines.” I quote: “On occasion, Queen Lili‘uokalani taught music, and one of her students, Charles E. King, wrote Hawaii’s best-known opera, Prince of Hawaii, which debuted in 1925. A tale of love and machinations in ancient Hawaii—replete with prince, princess, hula dancers, a chorus and musicians—Prince contained twenty-four songs, several of which have become Island classics, including ‘Beautiful Kahana’ and ‘Ke Kali Nei Au’ (better known as ‘The Hawaiian Wedding Song’).” Thus, King knew his Hawaiian sounds and it’s no surprise that “Song of the Islands” has lived on in countless film and cartoon appearances as a way of setting a Hawaiian atmosphere.

What is surprising is that King’s simple 16-bar melody would become a jazz standard, performed and recorded by the likes of Count Basie, Gene Ammons, Earl Hines and many more. Of course, it’s not so surprising when one considers that Louis Armstrong introduced it to the jazz world, much as he did the same with so many other future standards with his records of 1929-1933. When Armstrong entered OKeh’s New York studios on January 24, 1930, he was still more or less a freelance musician. His first New York session on March 5, 1929 was done with members of Luis Russell’s band. Armstrong obviously felt at home with the group, which featured a number of musicians from New Orleans, as they again backed Armstrong up on two classic sessions from December 1929. On “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “St. Louis Blues,” Armstrong even let young trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen blow a bit. Allen was obviously influenced by Armstrong (who wasn’t?) but he was really his own man, with a thoroughly modern approach to trumpet playing that hinged on devil-may-care rhythmic phrasing and the exciting use of nonchord tones. At the time, some accused him of playing wrong notes but he was just ahead of his time, though once the bop school started being hailed for playing those same “wrong notes,” Allen became a largely neglected figure. In taking a jazz historiography class at Rutgers while obtaining my Master’s degree, I was stunned that the majority of the class had no real clue of what a genius Red Allen was. A crime.

Anyway, on January 17, 1930, the Russell band backed Armstrong for a one-nighter at a midnight dance at Baltimore’s New Albert Auditorium, drawing 1,400 people. One week later, the Russell band shared an OKeh date with Armstrong, recording two of their own arrangements, plus “Song of the Islands” with Pops. The Russell band was up first with “Saratoga Shout.” I absolutely adore Luis Russell’s own recordings and I think his rhythm section deserves credit for being one of the first truly swinging units in jazz history. You can hear them in their glory by listening to “Saratoga Shout” by clicking here.

Red Allen’s hot solo on “Saratoga Shout” was taken with Armstrong looking on, as John Chilton writes in his marvelous Allen biography, Ride, Red, Ride. “Louis was visibly impressed by Red’s startling 32-bar-chrous on ‘Saratoga Shout’ and offered genuine congratulations, much to the young man’s delight. One suspects that Louis, even, then, knew that Red would never overtake him, but nevertheless Red, on top form, was a formidable rival.” Chilton goes on to quote Armstrong’s second wife, Lillian Hardin, who once was caught listening to a Red Allen record in Armstrong’s prescence. “He must have stood there for a minute with an angry expression on his face, then, after a bit, he smiled and said, ‘Yeah, he’s blowing,’” Hardin remembered.

With the Russell band sufficiently warmed up, it was time for Pops to perform “Song of the Islands.” Though it might have been something of a crazy idea from the a-and-r man, the group definitely had “Song of the Islands” down by the time they recorded it. I’m also guessing they must have given it a test spin at that Baltimore dance the previous week. Also, the Russell band was augmented by three violinists whose names have been lost to posterity, though Allen remembered them as white musicians from a local theater orchestra, according to Chilton. Before I go any further, why don’t you have a listen to the relaxing sounds of “Song of the Islands” by clicking here. Grass skirts are not mandatory…

From the opening note of the record, we’re already shrouded in controversy. We hear a vibraphone (ten months before Lionel Hampton used it to introduce “Memories of You”) but the question is who is playing it? According to Chilton, Red Allen remembered every detail of his sessions with Armstrong and he made an effort to let discographers know that Armstrong’s valet played drums on “Song of the Islands” while Russell band drummer Paul Barbarin played the vibes. Chilton refers to the valet as “Tout Suite,” which sounds like a mishearing/misspelling to me. There’s a photo of Louis and some friends fooling around on a fake boat at Coney Island in 1929 (the photo can be found on page 143 of Michael Cogswell’s Armstrong book, among other places). Standing tall in the photo is a man clearly wearing a valet’s uniform. Armstrong labeled the photo and next to this man, he wrote, “Too Sweet, our chauffer.” Thus, I tend to believe his name was “Too Sweet” rather than “Tout Suite,” but regardless, he did exist and Red Allen seemed pretty sure that he played drums. This could indeed be true because the entire record features nothing but a simple brush pattern on the snare drum. The tempo never lags but there’s no accents (notwithstanding one cymbal hit) or anything flashy whatsoever. Perhaps “Too Sweet” knew a thing or two about the drums and he maintain one pattern at one tempo for three minutes. However, the revered Jos Willems has listened carefully and he doesn’t buy the “Too Sweet” argument. Willems makes the convincing point that the drumming is identical to Barbarin’s work on “Blue Turning Grey Over You.” See what you think by clicking here.

Willems makes a good point. So who is playing vibes? Willems notes that no piano is heard until the seventh bar of the theme statement so that makes Luis Russell a good candidate. But though I agree with all of Willems points, why would Allen vividly remember the valet playing drums? It seems like something he wouldn’t make up but I guess we’ll never know. Chalk it up to another unsolved jazz mystery, I suppose.

Anyway, I’ve only discussed six seconds of the record and I haven’t even gotten to the part that makes most jazz purists throw up their lunch. Immediately after the vibe introduction, the melody of “Song of the Islands” is sweetly played by the three unknown violinists. With the vibraphone still going on in the background and Pops Foster bowing a two-beat pattern, this does not quite sound like a Louis Armstrong or a Luis Russell record, but maybe more like something by Andy Iona. This goes on for 16 bars before a commercial sounding arranged passage that sounds like quintessential 1920s dance band music. We’re 36 seconds into the record and Gunther Schuller has already contemplated suicide. Don’t believe me? Here’s Schuller himself: “By January 1930 the crrpy tentacles of commercialism had begun to exert an alarming degree of stylistic constraint. On Song of the Islands we can hear the results. A painful mélange of non-jazz elements intrude upon Armstrong, and he himself does not escape entirely unscathed. And how could he?”

Ah, Gunther. Doesn’t the man have any sense of period charm? So the first 40 seconds of “Song of the Islands” isn’t great jazz. So what? I’m sure the guys in the band thought the same thing, but I’m sure they must have had a good time making a Hawaiian sounding record. Regardless, when Pops enters, it does become a great jazz record, so really, why get so bent out of shape about a couple of violin players and a vibraphone? At least Schuller did come up with the perfect adjective for Pops Foster’s bass playing during this segment of the song: “voompy.”

Anyway, when Pops finally does enter, muted, it’s like a breath of fresh air. Am I the only one who thinks that the sappy violins and faux-Hawaiian atmosphere actually enhance Pops’s playing? He’s light years ahead of the arrangement and I think more can be said about his contribution to the song than the “commercial” aspects. I actually find it somewhat comical when I hear his entrance. He’s from a different planet. It’s like the Harlem Globetrotters ending up on Gilligan’s Island.

As I already said, “Song of the Islands” isn’t exactly a work of Gershwin or Ellington. It’s 16 simple bars and almost the entire written melody consists of whole notes or quarter notes. And out of such shoddy mud, Armstrong sculpts a masterpiece of storytelling. He takes the simple melody and keeps it simple, though his subtle repetitions of the main pitch practically define swing, especially in his second bar. He leaves plenty of space in those first four bars, but in bar five he begins to loosen up with a phrase that is 100% out of the Armstrong vocal book (I’m thinking “Don’t Play Me Cheap” or “Some Sweet Day,” among other examples). Heading into the second eight bars, he leaves two more beats of space before playing a neat little triplet figure in the turnaround. He then runs up and down with an arpeggio made up of a couple of more triplets before settling on the concert F of the original sheet music. He repeats it a few times, relaxed, before another rhythmically slippery phrase that sounds like he’s playing an obbligato to his own reading of the melody. After two more beats of space, Armstrong concludes his statement with more of the melody, though his phrasing couldn’t be more smooth and cloudlike.

Armstrong then hands the ball over to the great J.C. Higginbotham, who gives the melody more respect than it deserves, but he does repeat a few notes much as Armstrong did. A modulation from Ab to F sets up Armstrong’s wordless vocal, sung with glee club backing by a few members of the Russell band. People like Schuller hate this stuff, but Armstrong’s performing career began by singing in a vocal quartet in New Orleans and many of his classic early records feature this device (“Basin Street Blues,” “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” “Squeeze Me” and more). This is one of the most trumpet-like scat solos Armstrong ever took. It’s almost completely centered around swinging repetitions of a single note or two. Again, do you want to define the feeling of swing? Listen to the vocal a few times until it’s drilled in your head. Then, tap your table or desk at the same time as every one of Armstrong’s individually scatted notes. Then, sing it in your head and just tap. The combination of on-the-beat phrases juxtaposed with the notes placed in between the beats, well, if that’s not swing, I don’t know what is.

The band then takes a 16-bar arranged passage, a good opportunity to grab a quick beverage. Please, don’t judge the Russell band by a performance like this. This is just a dead arrangement but in a matter of seconds, you’ll forget all about it as Armstrong reenters, this time playing back in Ab. Much like his opening outing, Armstrong begins by working over that concert Eb. Again, in bar five, where he originally inserted that vocal-ish phrase, he plays another incredibly smooth arpeggio, beginning on an Ab, heading down to a low D, then right back up to a higher C, repeated three times before Armstrong bends and stretches an Eb like Silly Putty. After the usual amount of space, Armstrong begins the next eight bars with six repeated Eb’s, all on different beats, before a nifty little Eb-F-Eb turn of a phrase. Then, much like he did the first time around, Armstrong plays the F’s from the melody, then improvises a new little obbligato based around the notes of a Bb7 chord. Then it’s back to the melody. It’s a fine chorus with some nimble phrases but nothing earth-shattering. Until…

Armstrong joins the band for two bars of an arranged passage that leads to a modulation to the key of Db. Now Armstrong demonstrates the pure power and brilliance of his chops. He approaches the tune in much the same way as his first two go-arounds, but because of the key change, he’s now pumping out high Ab’s instead of Eb’s…a big difference. He still leaves plenty of space, allowing the listener all the more time to marvel at the beauty of his tone. In the sixth bar, Armstrong plays his calling card phrase, Bb-Db-Bb-Db-F-F-Db before uncorking another series of arpeggios in bar seven. The notes of a Db chord? Db-F-Ab. The notes of Armstrong’s arpeggio? Ab-F-Db-F-Ab-Db-Ab-F-Db-F-Ab. Armstrong rattles it off like it’s simple and again, I’ll use the word “smooth” to describe the flow of his faster phrases. But with the velocity shelved, Armstrong concentrates on power and drama for the ending. Immediately, from the start of the key change, you know what Armstrong has to do if he’s really going to play the melody that high. And of course he does it, letting a high Bb ring out clearly before toping out at a spine-tingling high C. Having reached his climax, Armstrong builds downward and ends on a low-key Db-Eb-Db phrase. Someone, anyone, strikes a somber chord on the vibraphone and the record comes to a close. A gem of Armstrong’s OKeh big band period.

For many, this is where Armstrong’s association with “Song of the Islands” ends, but he did revive it with his big band. A new uptempo arrangement of the song was performed on a couple radio broadcasts from 1940 and 1941, available, as usual, on the peerless Ambassador label. The first one comes from the Cotton Club in April 1940 and though it’s ten years later, Armstrong’s still fronting the Russell band with Red Allen, Higginbotham, Charlie Holmes and Pops Foster still aboard. This arrangement has nothing to do with the relaxed, Hawaiian feel of the original. It’s about twice as fast and opens with the reeds only alluding to the melody in between responses from the brass. It’s a nice example of the Swing Era being “orchestrated Armstrong,” as some have called it. All traces of dance band-sounding violins and vibes are gone. It now swings from note one and the casual rephrasing of the melody stems very much from Armstrong’s language.

After one chorus, Higginbotham takes one on his “tram-boon.” All it takes is one listen and you can understand why Pops enjoyed Trummy Young’s blustery playing so much in the 1950s. Higgy’s entire solo is proto-Trummy and it’s exciting as hell. And in a nod to Armstrong’s original, J.C. plays that Armstrong vocal-type phrase in the same exact place Armstrong played it in 1930. Like the original, the tune modulates for an Armstrong scat vocal, once again over glee club backing. This time Armstrong takes two choruses, a break joining them and the band indulges in some arranged singing, repeating Armstrong’s last phrase, to allow Armstrong to get his chops together. And when he does, stand back! There’s no more modulating. Armstrong begins right off in Db and wails for four full choruses, sticking exclusively to the upper register throughout. He sticks closely to the melody for much of it, but still finds time to throw in some nimble improvisations such as, you guessed it, that same vocal phrase in bars five and six. With each passing chorus, Armstrong shows off the pure raw power of his 1940 chops. In 1930, the buildup to that high C is very dramatic; you see it coming and when he hits it, you feel exhilarated. By 1940, every chorus featured a high C hit seemingly without any effort. Armstrong’s favorite drummer, Sid Catlett, really knew how to drive Pops and Pops responds with some real exciting work in the last two choruses. It’s tremendously exciting and is all over in two minutes and 30 seconds, a full minute shorter than the original. This particular version is available on the Ambassador disc, At the Cotton Club, which should have been hailed by the jazz community but instead is almost impossible to find. You can find out more about it by visiting Ambassador’s website at www.classicjazz.se. Ah, where would us Armstrong lovers be without Gösta Hägglöf!?

Volume eight of Ambassador’s Armstrong series contains an extremely rare broadcast from the Grand Terrace in Chicago on November 27, 1941. The quality is poor, but I’m just thankful the music survives. The fast arrangement of “Song of the Islands” is trotted out again, picking up with Louis’s scat solo. Armstrong’s four-chorus improvisation is very similar to the one he played at the Cotton Club the previous year. As always, I argue that this is not a bad thing. Armstrong was from the generation who worked on their solos until they were perfect. This didn’t mean that Armstrong didn’t improvise but sometimes, when he had a good solo “set,” it remained that way. And again, this is not a bad thing. Never mind the critics who might complain about such matters. I picture a dancer at the Cotton Club in April 1940 or someone standing around the bandstand of the Grand Terrace in November 1941. They were the ones Armstrong was playing for, not some critic writing 65 years later, and I’m sure they were gassed by “Song of the Islands” when they heard it. How could you not be?

Now let’s flash forward to 1956 and Louis Armstrong’s last run-in with “Song of the Islands” from the Autobiography. As I’ve stated a hundred thousand times, I’m a big big big supporter of the Autobiography project where the 55-year-old Armstrong tackled man of the songs he originally made famous in the 1920s and 1930s. Some people are so anal about Armstrong’s greatness as a young man that they don’t give the Autobiography sessions a fair shake. I think this is big mistake. Armstrong was completely relaxed for the Autobiography with no other gigs to occupy his time or chops. He was going through a peak period of blowing between 1953 and 1959 and he had the finest edition of the All Stars backing him up, the one with Trummy Young and Edmond Hall. Armstrong responds with brilliant playing on every track, sometimes topping his original efforts. For a great example, listen to Armstrong crack the final high Eb on the original 1929 “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” just barely getting it out. Then listen to the Autobiography version where he hits it and holds it. After playing this example during one of my Armstrong lectures at the Institute of Jazz Studies, esteemed trumpeter Randy Sandke remarked that he had no doubt that Armstrong was a technically better trumpet player in his 50s than he was in his 20s. And the Autobiography is filled with dozens of these great moments, though of course, it’s not without its flaws. Some of the Hot Five/Seven number arranged by Bob Haggart are a little weak, notably “Potato Head Blues.” And because many of the originals featured no drums, someone at Decca thought it would be a good idea to keep that sound by just giving Barrett Deems a hi-hat, snare and bass drum! Thus, Deems doesn’t have much to do and naturally, his playing was killed by many jazz critics when the records first came out, even though he sounded different on other albums and in live performances. Velma couldn’t quite replicate the greatness of the 1920s blues divas either.

But these small flaws are completely overcome by the remarkable Sy Oliver sessions. Oliver was hired to recreate the OKeh and Victor big band recordings and these sides, to me, are the Autobiography’s masterpieces. The December 13, 1956 session started right off with “Song of the Islands.” Oliver usually kept his arrangements pretty streamlined, but he brought the original ones at least somewhat into the future. Thus, the vibraphone and violins are out on “Song of the Islands,” replaced by a delicate Billy Kyle piano intro and the melody stated by the rich reed section made up of great players like Hilton Jefferson and Lucky Thompson. The tempo’s a little slower than the original, which lends an even more relaxed feeling to the proceedings. Pops enters in Ab, gently massaging the Eb. The “vocal phrase” in bars five and six is gone, replaced by a neat little downward phrase that sounds like he’s skipping downhill. Armstrong really sticks to the melody here, not offering many frills but his tone is beautiful and he his last two bars are rhythmically tricky.

As in 1930, a trombone solo follows and it’s a mellow one played by Trummy. After the modulation for the vocal, Armstrong begins his scat solo, but this time he’s all alone with no other voices to back him up. This is one of my very favorite scat sessions. As I already mentioned, Armstrong was very relaxed during the Autobiography sessions. Decca producer Milt Gabler made sure the All Stars had no other bookings and he made sure to stuff the sessions full of good food and good friends. One of those good friends was the actor Slim Thompson, who, according to IMDB, had four roles in movies of the 1930s, including The Petrified Forest and Green Pastures, before leaving the film industry. I have seen rare photos of these sessions at the Armstrong Archives and Thompson is highly conspicuous, clowning around with Pops and even with a harp from the Louis and the Angels session made the day after the Autobiography sessions ended. Since “Song of the Islands” was first up, it’s easy to picture Armstrong arriving at the studio, warming up and welcoming his friends, perhaps telling a dirty joke or two.

Thus, when Armstrong began his scat vocal on “Song of the Islands,” he almost immediately slips in the phrase “Slim Thompson-face” into his scat! I can only imagine the smiles in the studio at that one. Three seconds later, Armstrong encodes some more secret meanings into his scat with something about “Rinsofax.” I don’t know about the fax part, but Rinso was a popular laundry detergent that sponsored the Amos and Andy radio show in the 1940s. I don’t know how it got into Armstrong’s mind, but it did and by him scatting it, it was probably meant as another inside joke for someone, probably Thompson, in the studio that day. Two seconds after “Rinsofax,” Armstrong sings, “What you say, Gate?” so clearly, he didn’t care about the record any more. He was giving a performance to those in the studio and I’m sure they were loving it.

As the scat goes on, Armstrong lets the listeners in on why he loves “Song of the Islands” so much. Take away the Hawaiian elements, the violins and vibraphone on the original. Take away the swinging call and response of the 1940 broadcasts. Take away the glee club backings and scat vocals. What attracted Armstrong to “Song of the Islands”? He reveals the secret at the 2:27 mark in yet another aside to the studio crowd: “Them changes gate.” It might have only been 16 simple bars, but Armstrong dug the chord changes. There’s the opening (in Ab) Ab-Adim7-Eb/Bb and the Ab to F7 to Bb7 in the second eight, two somewhat sentimental patterns that Armstrong must have felt to be quite beautiful. And in his horn, they are.

Like 1930, the tune modulates back to Ab for Armstrong’s trumpet reentrance, which is one of my favorite moments of the performance. Three declamatory notes followed by six beats of space before Armstrong tip-toes back in to create some very lucid ruminations on the melody. It’s all tone and damn, what a tone it is. At the end of these 16 bars, the band prepares for the climactic modulation, rewritten by Oliver to sound much more exciting with Trummy’s trombone on top. Armstrong enters with that beautiful high Ab, the band digging in behind him over backbeats by Deems. On the original, Armstrong stuck mainly to that Ab, but in 1956, Armstrong goes up to a Bb, a welcome addition to this gorgeous solo. The buttery smooth arpeggios and double-timed phrases are gone but like a pitcher who loses a few miles off their fastball with age and has to become a finesse pitcher (unless he’s Roger Clemens—insert steroids joke here), Armstrong made due in his later years with a huge sound, a golden tone and a relaxed phrasing that still defied conventional rhythm while defining the concept of swing. Armstrong floats through this portion of “Song of the Islands” until it’s time to hit the high Bb’s, which he does beautifully. I love the sound of his tone on the repeated Bbs. It’s so pure and he doesn’t even sound like he’s struggling, though God knows what this did to his chops. The high C sings like a bird but instead of replicating the original low-key ending, Armstrong plants his feet firmly, hits a high C and ends with a gigantic high Db, higher than any note he played on the 1930 original.

“Song of the Islands” is one of my favorite highlights of the Autobiography, but that December 13 day was just getting started when you look at the amazing blowing that followed: “That’s My Home,” “ Memories Of You” and “Them There Eyes.” Unbelievable stuff. But I think to write any more about “Song of the Islands,” I would have to actually fly to Hawaii. Or maybe read a Hawaiian in-flight magazine. Regardless, if you’re planning on celebrating a merry Kalikimaka next week, don’t forget to throw a little of Pops blowing “Song of the Islands” on the turntable. And if you’re not celebrating a merry Kalikimaka next week…well, don’t forget to throw a little of Pops blowing “Song of the Islands” on the turntable!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Ricky Riccardi on WBGO

Hello all. I just wanted to write up a quick entry to let you know that the interview I did for WBGO in November aired this past Friday. It was originally about a 20 minute chat and they edited down to about nine minutes, throwing in some nifty editing when I discuss "Star Dust." And no, I wasn't sick that day, that's my actual voice...not exactly a velvet tone, but hey, what else would you expect from someone who idolizes Louis Armstrong's voice so much???

Anyway, if you'd like to hear the interview, click here. My thanks again to WBGO 88.3 and Doug Doyle for giving me the opportunity. Otherwise, the plans for the week are aiming for an entry on "Song of the Islands" in the early part of the week and a wrap-up of Armstrong's six Decca Christmas records by the end of the week. Of course, with last minute Christmas shopping, a family gettogether Tuesday night, gigs on Wednesday and Thursday and a trip to Houston for a week on Friday...well, it might not happen. But for Pops, I'll try to squeeze it in. Til then!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

December 11, 1928/1948

Today’s my 50th post for this blog and to commemorate this momentous occasion, I’m going to do two entries for the price of one (if you’re paying for these, you’re doing something wrong). December was a very fertile month in Louis Armstrong’s career and arguably, December 11 was the date of some of his finest work. On December 11, 1928, Armstrong’s “Hot Four” accompanied the unfortunate singer Lillie Delk Christian on a session that turned in some beautiful Armstrong work on “I Must Have That Man,” in addition to Armstrong’s first run-ins with “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Sweethearts On Parade.” On December 11, 1948, the All Stars turned in a short, smoking set for the Damon Runyon Fund, broadcast from the Blue Note in Chicago and issued on a Storyville C.D. The wondrous Autobiography sessions kicked off on December 11, 1956, with one of the very best of the various dates that made up the final album. And 11 years later, on that date in 1967, Armstrong recorded two songs with Dick Jacobs’s orchestra…singing completely in Italian!

I could spend hours writing about each of the songs Armstrong recorded at that incredible first Autobiography session. The same goes for the Italian session, which I love so much. So I’ll save those for future blogs where I can go into more graphic detail. For now, though, I’ll cover the Christian session and that December broadcast from the Blue Note. Let’s begin!

December 11, 1928

We’ll start off with Lillie Delk Christian and the less said about her, the better. Lee Wiley once described Billie Holiday as sounding like her shoes were too tight. I think that applies well to Christian. Her hat might have been too tight, too. She is the definition of a bad period female singer of the 1920s: no sense of swing, too much enthusiasm, a whiny voice, wobbly vibrato and irritating phrasing. But of course, I’m judging her on Pops and everyone that came after him, so I don’t want to attack Christian maliciously. She was a product of her time, she must have been popular enough for OKeh to keep feeding her popular songs of the day and she adds some period charm to these recordings (though she also causes headaches).

This December session was the second pairing of Armstrong and Christian. They recorded together in June, a date that featured, “Was It A Dream?,” a lovely waltz and the sensational “Too Busy,” where Armstrong scats behind Christian’s vocal reprise, offering a demonstration of how to swing (while Christian argues for the other side). The records must have sold well and/or impressed the bigwigs at OKeh because the exact same band was reassembled for the December session. Pianist Earl Hines and guitarist Mancy Carr were regular associates of Armstrong during this period and without drums or a bass/tuba, they give the date a breezy rhythmic feel. Clarinet legend Jimmie Noone only recorded with Pops on the two Christian dates, though Hines would soon join Noone for some fantastic records.

This session began with “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” with Christian singing the rarely heard verse as well as singing the melody exactly as written on the printed page. Her voice goes through my head like a fire alarm. Armstrong’s playing is very subdued while Noone flutters around his lead, sounding at times a little like how Barney Bigard would later play with Pops. Christian returns to take the song out and overall, not much happens. But if you’d like to have fun, compare Christian’s vocal with Armstrong’s, recorded March 5, 1929.
Christian.
Armstrong.

“Baby” is the next song and it’s not much better. The band doesn’t have a firm grip on the song during the introduction but they soon fall into a nice bounce, Carr playing some deep single-notes a la Johnny St. Cyr. Of course, the highlight is the instrumental chorus in between the vocal. Pops stays subdued until the bridge, where he lets loose a bit. Hines plays chords on every beat like Lil Hardin until he switches to a stride backing. Christian reenters and starts emoting…time for more Advil. Take a listen.

Armstrong would spin “Sweethearts On Parade” into gold in 1930 but listening to Christian sing it makes you realize just how lousy Carmen Lombardo’s song really is (the same goes for Billie Holiday’s version of Lombardo’s “A Sailboat in the Moonlight,” which, too, makes delicious wine out of some sour grapes). This song was not the ideal vehicle for Christian. Every time she holds a word like “two” or “through,” her vibrato flies out of control. Fortunately, there’s Pops, and his muted obbligato is full of gem-like phrases, such as the double-time moment at the end of her first eight bars. When the band finally takes over, Armstrong tears it up, playing the melody an octave higher, double-timing a bit, swinging on quarter-notes, throwing in a perfect blue note and ending on a dizzying run. It’s the perfect blueprint for the classic 1930 record. But for now, Christian’s will have to do so click here to listen.

They saved the best for last with “I Must Have That Man,” another song destined to become a standard. Christian’s tone-deaf reading of the lyrics take up a lot of time (does she even know what this song’s about?), but fortunately there’s a good deal of choice Armstrong to get us through, starting with the scintillating introduction. Carr’s guitar plays a striking chord and boom, Armstrong’s off and running for a dramatic beginning that leads perfectly into the verse. However, Armstrong’s later solo is the high point. He plays the melody with such passion, but remember this is Armstrong of a 1928 vintage and it’s only a matter of time before he uncorks a dazzling flurry of notes. His double-time runs are something to marvel at but I’m sure that if he recorded the song even just ten years later, he would have stayed on the passionate path with which he begins his solo. Regardless, it’s beautiful playing and if you’d like to listen along, click here.

December 11, 1948

Flash-forward 20 years and Armstrong’s back in Chicago and Earl Hines is still playing piano but goodness knows about a million things happened in between. The All Stars were now a hot commodity and on this night, they performed at a memorial concert for Damon Runyon, who died on December 10, 1946. The proceeds to the concert went to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. The complete broadcast is available on a Storyville disc that pairs this evening with Armstrong’s Winter Garden show of June 1947 (also available on Itunes). “Sleepy Time” naturally opens the proceedings but remember, Armstrong rarely sang it in public until after he recorded it with Gordon Jenkins in 1951. Chicago disc jockey and future Today show host Dave Garroway was the emcee that night, a good choice since he frequently wrote about and championed Armstrong during the period.

“Muskrat Ramble” kicks off the proceedings, always a welcome tune. Just a little over one year earlier, on November 30, 1947, the All Stars more or less improvised their way through a classic jam session on the tune. By the time of this Chicago performance, the song had turned into a smooth routine, but that didn’t make it any less exciting. In fact, for me personally, “Muskrat Ramble” in any form might be my favorite overall All Stars performance and this 1948 one is a good one. In the band this evening, besides Hines, were Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Arvell Shaw and Sid Catlett, the classic, truly “All Star” version of the band that most people name as their favorite edition. It’s not mine because I don’t really care for Hines’s playing with the All Stars (listen to his clumsy, intrusive glissando at the 1:31 mark of “Muskrat”). However, this group did have Sid Catlett and to me, Pops never had a better drummer. His accents were always a thrilling aspect of any version of “Muskrat Ramble” he played on and this version is no different. Hines takes a very fine solo, full of all sorts of intricate Hines-isms, though he even seems to trip himself up by the end of it. The background riffs behind Bigard were initiated by Pops at the Symphony Hall concert. By this time, he and Teagarden had them locked in tight. For more proof that Pops still improvised, his two-chorus solo on this version is different from almost any other “Ramble” of the period. Teagarden’s solo is typically swinging and gets more great support from Catlett. Pops’s charge into the rideout, echoed first by Bigard then Teagarden became part of the set routine. Pops sounds pretty fierce in the closing ensemble, obviously loving what Catlett’s putting down, but the rest of the band isn’t on their level. I love Teagarden and Bigard but they weren’t the greatest ensemble players and Hines wasn’t the greatest accompanist (you can practically hear his resentment with each passing chord). Thus, though this is fine version, for me the classic “Muskrat Rambles” really occurred between 1953 and 1959, Pops’s peak with the All Stars, namely thanks to Trummy Young and Billy Kyle.

But on that night in 1948, Armstrong wasn’t the only star on stage. One has to remember that Teagarden and Hines were leading big bands of their own before joining Pops and they were quite well known at the time. Couple that with the fact that Armstrong always managed to feature his sidemen, even on a 15-minute broadcast, and it’s easy to see why Armstrong would devote three of his six full songs at the Blue Note to Big T or Fatha Hines. Teagarden’s up first, duetting with Pops on “A Song Is Born,” the song from the film of the same name. Armstrong always went out of his way to feature the songs he made popular in movies and true enough, “A Song Is Born” would stay in the book for at least four years after the forgettable movie premiered. Interestingly, Garroway mentions that Victor was donating the proceeds from the sales of Armstrong’s record of the tune to the Runyon Cancer fund, a nice gesture. Teagarden’s vocal is up first with Pops providing the obbligato. I don’t know why I have the urge to mention this, but I’ve always liked the way Pops sings the phrase “reet jungle beat.” After the vocal, Pops solos with some very fleet-fingered ideas before handing the ball over to Teagarden. When Armstrong reenters, he’s in superb control of his upper register but after a short, relaxed spot by Bigard, he does crack the last high note he reaches for near the end, but he regains his footing and does hit. Man, it was not easy being Louis Armstrong.

Teagarden’s next with “Basin Street Blues,” always the perfect feature for his Texas vocalizing and slippery trombone playing. Naturally, Pops can’t stay completely out of the limelight, especially on a song he made his own in 1928 and his short solo is a gem. A lot of it was set, but does throw in some new phrases—and is it me or does his break reference “The Gypsy”? Teagarden ends it with a “tram-bone coda” this time for those keeping score at home on the whole “coda vs. cadenza” showdown.

Fatha’s follows Teagarden with “Boogie Woogie On the St. Louis Blues.” When he joined the band, Pops was still romping on this number himself. He decided to let Hines have it but on some early versions, you can hear Armstrong and the other horns noodling in the background. By the time of this version, the horns play background riffs for a couple of choruses leading to that Hines tremolo. I always liked this feature and this is an especially good version because the tempo is a little slower than it would become. Hines does more with his left hand than most pianists do with both.

With the features out of the way, Pops romps on the final two numbers, “High Society” and “Royal Garden Blues.” “High Society” subconsciously highlights one of the great strengths of any edition of the All Stars: their ability to always play in tune. I listen to a lot of New Orleans jazz and my collection includes it all: Bunk, George Lewis, Jim Robinson, Paul Barbarin, Kid Thomas, Punch Miller, Johnny Wiggs, Albert Burbank, Kid Ory and so on. I can’t tell you how many versions of “High Society” I own where the band sounds awful playing the introduction. Out-of-tune clarinets, creaky trumpets, shaky rhythm. And these are bands that I love and versions that usually swing nicely after the intro. But I don’t think Armstrong ever led an edition of the All Stars that ever played remotely out-of-tune. Kid Ory, either, for that matter, something that Barney Bigard once brought up in a Down Beat article, I believe.

Anyway, Pops was no stranger to “High Society,” having dazzled Sidney Bechet with his playing on it when he was only a teenager. He recorded it with King Oliver in 1923 but he really turned in an explosive performance on his Victor big band record of it. It was an exciting staple of many All Stars shows and though Barney Bigard usually stepped into the limelight with rendition of the Picou clarinet choruses, the song was a better feature for Pops’s stirring lead work and the peerless drumming of Big Sid. I know I’m repeating myself, but like almost everything else from that night, the 1948 Blue Note version of “High Society” is mighty good and just as exciting as ever but it’s lacking a certain spark that was present at the 1947 Symphony Hall version, my candidate for greatest version of “High Society” ever. Nevertheless, Pops and Big Sid really shine here, much as they always did, before Big Sid had to quit touring in mid-1949.

Big Sid also plays a part in the success of “Royal Garden Blues.” Armstrong never recorded this song before the formation of the All Stars but starting with the Town Hall concert, it was a staple for the next 20 years. It was always an exciting performance and it was also the rare one where Pops never developed a truly set solo. He usually improvised on this one on a night-to-night basis, which made it a good opener for nights when he didn’t call “Indiana” for whatever reason (rare, but it did happen). Pops is all over on this one, leading a few opening ensemble choruses, playing background riffs behind Barney, taking two strong choruses of his own and sending everyone home at the end. It’s piece of evidence #594 about how hard Armstrong worked with the All Stars. During the big band period, he could smile for two minutes, pick up his horn, blow a tremendous chorus or two, hit a high note at the end, then take a break for the next song or bring on a lame vocalist. But with the All Stars, he was the whole show…and what a show at that! For me, this “Royal Garden” is the highlight of this Blue Note show.

The band gels a bit betters and Pops’s solo is a gasser. He shows off some quick playing during his first chorus—it’s not bop, by any means, but it has good velocity and shows that the Louis of 1928 wasn’t exactly dead and buried. You can even hear Teagarden moan an enthusiastic “Yeah” as Pops enters his second chorus. Here, you can really hear the genius of Big Sid. I’ve written time and again about how Pops loved his backbeats and later drummers like Kenny John, Barrett Deems and Danny Barcelona gave him a steady diet of them to always keep things jumping. But nobody played a backbeat like Big Sid for a very important reason: he knew when to hold back and when to spring them on Pops. During Armstrong’s first chorus, he’s all cymbals and accents but when Pops drives into that second helping, Catlett immediately starts thwacking away on two and four and the effect is absolutely exhilarating. Pops is obviously inspired and he responds with some fierce playing, that high minor third sounding as bluesy as can be. And here’s the thing: this version is pitched in A, which is obviously wrong. Armstrong played “Royal Garden” in Bb so this performance should be a little brisker and that one bent blue note is a high concert Db. Pops sounds like he could go all day, even dipping into the start of Teagarden’s solo before bowing out with a graceful, small gliss. Pops’s closing ensemble lead was fairly set but when it’s so good, how can you complain?

With the applause still ringing, Teagarden launches into “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” the All Stars’s closing theme during its early years. Sure, Pops recorded the piece in 1932 but it was really Teagarden’s theme and he plays lead throughout. I always found it interesting that this was Armstrong’s closer for some time, but like I said, Teagarden was a big star, too, and maybe Pops wanted to use it because both he and Teagarden were associated with it. But once Teagarden left the group, so did “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” as a closing theme, replaced once and for all with a reprise of “Sleepy Time.”

So that’ll conclude my wrap-up of some of the great music that Armstrong record on two different December 11’s in his lifetime. Though tomorrow’s December 14 and a glance at the discography shows that on December 14, 1938, Armstrong made his famous appearance on the Martin Block show where he jammed with the likes of Fats Waller and Bud Freeman. Now there’s some hot music to dig out…and maybe I’ll blog about that one too, if I have time (but I doubt it!).

And I’d like to close this 50th entry with a little bit of self-promotion. Last month, I was interviewed by Doug Doyle on WBGO, the world’s premier jazz radio station. The subject, of course, was Armstrong and the best of the interview will air tomorrow night, December 14 at 7:30 p.m. eastern standard time. You can listen to it live on wbgo.org but once it airs, I’ll be able to link the entire interview to the blog so keep your eyes open for that. In the meantime, thanks to those have been with me since post number one and here’s to those who’ll be with me for the next 50. And more than anything, here’s to Pops!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Lonesome

Recorded September 13, 1961
Track Time 2:30
Written by Dave and Iola Brubeck
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Dave Brubeck, piano
Originally released on Columbia
Currently available on CD: The Real Ambassadors
Available on Itunes? Yes

Today’s entry focuses on a record that is unlike any other in the Armstrong discography: “Lonesome.” On this one track you have Louis playing a solemn melody on the trumpet, delivering a sober spoken-word monologue at the same time and receiving first-rate accompaniment by a musician one wouldn’t normally associate with Armstrong’s circle, Dave Brubeck. It’s only two minutes and 30 seconds but it’s quite a touching record.

The track comes from The Real Ambassadors, the famous 1961 quasi-play/social statement composed by Brubeck and his wife Iola. Dealing with many social issues, including race, the Brubecks conceived of the entire project with Armstrong in mind from minute one, especially with Armstrong’s damning Little Rock comments still fresh in their minds. “I think that’s what we really tried to overcome when we wrote The Real Ambassadors because before we got into this project we didn’t really know Louis that well, but we sensed in him a depth and an unstated feeling we thought we could tap into without being patronizing, and I think that’s why he took to it,” Iola Brubeck remembered. They wanted to make a regular play out of it, but wanted to record the score first and foremost. They also wanted the great singer Carment McRae and the vocalese group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross to participate, all of whom agreed to do so immediately.

However, Armstrong was proving difficult to get a hold of, as Brubeck related in a piece titled “The Dave Brubeck-Columbia Records Story,” a compact-disc insert found in many Brubeck reissues. “But Louis’s road manager wouldn’t give me access when I wanted to discuss the project with him in Chicago, so I found out the number of Louis’s hotel room, sat in the lobby until room service came and hollered, ‘Hi, Louis’ when the door opened,” Brubeck remembered. “Louis invited me in, ordered me a steak and thought the idea was interesting. I gave him copies of the tunes to listen to on the road; and at the session, he was the first one in the studio and last guy to leave.”

Brubeck’s demo tapes of the material still exist at the Louis Armstrong Archives in Queens College. Listening to them today, they find a very polite Brubeck explaining the nature of the project and what Armstrong means to it. It is possible that Brubeck gave Armstrong the demo tapes of the songs in the summer of 1961 before the All Stars made a four-day tour of Germany because the tape begins with Brubeck saying, “I’ve just talked to Joe Glaser and he’s told me how difficult it will be for you to record any of these things before going to Europe. But I’m hoping you can figure out the backgrounds with my group playing and me singing the songs like you asked me to do.” When Brubeck first discussed the project at the aforementioned meeting in Chicago, he had brought along the lyrics to one of the songs to be performed, “Lonesome.” Not knowing the melody, Armstrong just read the lyrics, infusing them with a heavy dose of emotion which had a great effect on Brubeck. “Now I told my wife about the way you read the song ‘Lonesome’ in Chicago,” Brubeck says in his audio letter to Armstrong. “You didn’t sing it, you just read it and it was such a moving job that I thought maybe you would be able to read this on tape and send that back to us because this wouldn’t involve you singing or trying to match your voice with the backgrounds that I’ve sent you by my combo.”
The rest of the tape features Brubck and his trio playing the show’s originals with Brubeck singing the melodies (“I’m ashamed of the horrible way in which I sing,” he tells Armstrong at one point). Armstrong now had a copy of the material and would practice it whenever he had the rare luxury of free time. “Louis told everybody that we had written him an opera,” Brubeck remembered. “Isn’t that something?” The only problem was finding someone who wanted to record it. “All of the producers I took it to, thought it was great, but they’d give me all these excuses,” Brubeck recalled. “You weren’t supposed to have a message. I forget the word they used, but it meant you weren’t entertaining. We couldn’t lecture the American public on the subject of race.” Eventually, Brubeck’s own Columbia label agreed to record the material, which was done over the course of three sessions in September 1961.

Some of The Real Ambassadors sounds dated today and the efforts of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, whom I otherwise love, often get in the way. But Pops is prime form and his rapport with McRae has never been given its due. Sure, everyone knows that “Summer Song” is the album’s masterpiece, but I personally think “One Moment Worth Years” is ripe for rediscovery. The song would be a beautiful standard but I don’t think anyone besides Brubeck has ever recorded it. “I Didn’t Know Until You Told Me” is another beautiful duet with Armstrong offering McRae some absolutely gorgeous harmonies towards the end of the song.

Though “Summer Song” is about as melancholy as a song can be, “Lonesome” really hits some deep, low notes. As Brubeck stressed in his audio tape to Louis, he only wanted Armstrong to speak the words. Perhaps Brubeck toyed with the idea of using his quartet to back Pops on this one but in the end, someone had the great idea of having Pops playing the melody on the trumpet while overdubbing his monologue on top of it. The result is almost an Armstrong sensory overload…he’s coming at you from all angles! I also think it’s a very modern sounding recording. Armstrong had been overdubbing since “Because of You” in 1951 but this time it’s a whole different feel. Hell, it almost sounds like a “remix” some producer would paste together in today’s music world…minus the obnoxious beats.

But back to the wonders of the Armstrong vocal/trumpet duet. What I love about it is the fact that you still get Armstrong singing the song, though he does it with his horn. Clearly, the Brubecks wrote these lyrics to fit to a melody and Armstrong plays it beautifully, with Brubeck giving him sympathetic support. But having him just speak the words without alluding to anything that remotely resembles a melody gives the song a chilling quality. For those who know me by now, I have a thing for typing out lyrics and I think the words of “Lonesome” should be written down for it truly is much more a poem then a song:

All of my life, I’ve been lonely
I’ll go way back in my past.
I’ll tell you about Lonesome,
How the winters last and last.

I know the loneliest autumns,
Watching the leaves slowly turn,
Sad as the tag end of summer,
When dreams with the leaves will burn.

I’ve stood alone in springtime,
High up on a hill,
Cried in the rain in springtime,
Cause no one’s there to share the thrill.

There’s a certain glory in summer,
Quiet, contagious joy.
There is a silent story in summer,
That calls the mind a young boy.

You fell in love in the summer,
Then grew up far too fast.
Still he returns each summer,
To visit in the past.
The past.
The past.

Even writing the words while listening to them is an emotional experience. I love Armstrong New Orleans accent slipping out on the word “burn,” turning it into “boin.” It’s a completely straight-faced performance, though he manages a slight chuckle after mentioning the “young boy.” His voice goes way down for the final repetitions of “the past.” He sounds tired and scarred, but it’s just the true sign of Armstrong’s acting ability. He was marvelous at conveying drama and “Lonesome” is one of his fines moments. And on the next song recorded that day, “King For A Day,” he sounds as ebullient as ever, sharing some vaudeville patter with Trummy Young, and joyfully singing, “Day—yay—yay—yay,” a far cry from his haunting reading of “the past” that he gave probably just a short time earlier.

In the jazz world, there are few names bigger than Armstrong and Brubeck (who were first and second respectively in terms of jazz musicians on the cover of Time magazine), but their one collaboration, The Real Ambassadors, has always escaped the spotlight. Of course, a big part of this has to do with the play only being performed live once, an evening event at the Monterey Jazz Festival that those in attendance have never forgotten. At the time, the show and the album were heralded as triumphs for both Brubeck and Armstrong but as the decades have passed by, it’s taken a back seat to the likes of “What a Wonderful World” and “Take Five” (never mind the back seat, it might be in the trunk by now). But there are some wonderful moments throughout: Armstrong tackling Brubeck’s melody on “The Duke,” playing it an octave higher and sounding frighteningly powerful; Trummy’s vocal support on “King For A Day”; the aforementioned duets with McRae; the jaunty swing of “Since Love Had Its Way”; the timeless performance of “Summer Song”; and the touching monologue on “Lonesome,” a completely unique Armstrong performance. If you haven’t listened to The Real Ambassadors in awhile, dig it out…and tell me what you think! Comments are always appreciated and you can always e-mail me at Dippermouth@msn.com.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Georgia Grind

Recorded February 26, 1926
Track Time 2:36
Written by Spencer Williams
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8318
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

I’m glad that my Itunes landed on this song today because it allows me to delve into a little amateur sleuthing to attempt to trace the evolution of “Georgia Grind” and “Shake That Thing.” Armstrong recorded “Georgia Grind” twice in his career and both fine versions will be discussed in a little bit. For years, though, I’ve always been struck about how “Georgia Grind” and “Shake That Thing” share the exact same melody and in some versions, even some of the lyrics. So if you’re just here for Pops, scroll down while, but if you like sorting through 1920s jazz, blues and popular music history, stick with me!

An obvious first question is what came first, “Georgia Grind” or “Shake That Thing”? All signs seem to point to “Shake That Thing,” though do not be confused: Ford Dabney wrote a ragtime piece titled “Georgia Grind” in 1915 but it has nothing to do with the Spencer Williams tune Armstrong recorded in 1926 (certain websites claim Williams wrote in 1915…wrong!). Some versions of “Shake That Thing” credit the tune to “Traditional” but from what I can tell, it really belongs to New Orleans banjoist Papa Charlie Jackson, who recorded the first version of the song in May 1925. It’s pretty uptempo compared to some later versions, but a lot of the hallmarks are there, including the line about the “Jellyroll king.” Jackson’s version is not available to listen to for free on the Internet but I bought it off Itunes and it’s a lot of fun. (Jackson-Armstrong connection: Jackson also recorded with Freddie Keppard, singing another New Orleans favorite, “Salty Dog.” He also wrote and recorded a song called “Drop That Sack” but it has nothing to do with Armstrong’s composition of he same name.)

Anyway, Jackson’s record must have been something of a hit because by the end of 1925, it was already being covered by the likes of Clarence Williams’s Blue Five (December 15, 1925) and Ethel Waters (December 23, 1925). Waters slowed it down to give it more of a blues feeling. Her version is available on YouTube (no video, just the record) so if you’d like to hear it, here ‘tis:



The “Shake That Thing” craze continued into 1926 with Jimmy O’Bryant’s Washboard Band waxing it in January and Abe Lyman’s California Ambassador Orchestra recorded a hot version on February 1. The Lyman one is also on YouTube…again, no visual except for a picture of Lyman but the record comes through in beautiful clarity and as some of the posters discuss, this thing rocks and rolls!



So with one “Shake That Thing” cover after another being recorded, it was only a natural to have a copycat version soon appear. Enter our friend Spencer Williams (this marks two Williams entries in a row…I can probably do a month on him alone!). Williams perhaps remembered the title of the Dabney piece but more to point, Jackson’s first line referenced the peach state: “Now down in Georgia, they got a dance that’s new/ There ain’t nothin’ to it, it is easy to do/ Called ‘Shake That Thing.” Williams then borrowed a line that had been around for years:

Papa, Papa, just look at sis, out in the backyard shaking like this

On his Library of Congress recordings, Jelly Roll Morton sings this line on more than one occasion, including on “Michigan Water Blues” and “Hesitating Blues.” He sings it as:

Mama, mama, look at is, she’s out on the levee, doin’ the double twist

Obviously, Williams substituting “shaking like this” for “double twist” is a sly wink to “Shake That Thing.” Otherwise, both tunes are identical, though even I’ll admit, there are traces of this melody in many other blues tunes, including “Hesitating Blues.” And Joe Oliver’s solo on “Jazzin’ Babies Blues,” the one that Armstrong would borrow many times throughout the years, also has a “Shake That Thing”-type feel to it. But it does appear that Armstrong’s Hot Five was the first group to take a crack at the “Georgia Grind” so if you’d like to hear how they did, click here.

Now I like “Georgia Grind” because it’s one of those Hot Five records that didn’t set out to change the world, instead only aiming to entertain its listeners. It was recorded on the same day as “Heebie Jeebies,” “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Muskrat Ramble,” three tunes that indeed change the world and more power to ‘em, but “Georgia Grind” is one those reminders that young Louis “the artist” also had quite a bit of “the entertainer” in him as well. And by sharing the vocal with his wife Lil, why, it’s a practical blueprint for the duets with Velma Middleton of later years (more in a bit).

Armstrong starts the record at the V chord of the blues as the simples means for an introduction. He plays the melody in a very straight-forward fashion with Dodds and Ory sounding very comfortable (this didn’t always happen). We’re not even 30 seconds in and here comes Lil with the vocal:

Papa, Papa, look at sis, out in the backyard shaking like this,
Doing that Georgia Grind, that old Georgia Grind,
Now everybody’s talking about that old Georgia Grind.

I can shake it east, I can shake it west, but way down south I can shake it best,
Doing that Georgia Grind, I said dirty Georgia Grind,
Now everybody’s raving about that old Georgia Grind.

Ory then plays the melody for a few bars before improvising a simple solo that practically screams his name. Then Pops steps up to the mike for a good-time vocal. He was still in his enthusiastic, half-speaking, half-shouting days and I love it:

Come in here gal, come in here right now, out there trying to be bad and you don’t know how,
Doing the Georgia Grind, ohhhh, the Georgia Grind,
Everybody’s trying to do the Georgia Grind.

Say Old Miss Jones was bent and gray, saw the Georgia Grind, through her stick away,
She did the Georgia Grind, yessir she went crazy about the Georgia Grind—you know one thing?
Everybody’s trying to do the Georgia Grind.

I love those two choruses. Armstrong sings with more soul and feeling than those in the soul and R&B music world of today. I can’t imagine another pure blues singer doing better than Armstrong on words like “Everybody,” where he bends the first syllable beyond the blue horizon. And that quick, “You know one thing” would become something of a trademark. After the vocal, Johnny Dodds takes an eight-bar solo before Pops leads the rideout for the final four bars. No high notes, no stop-time solos, no dazzling feats of rhythmic risk-taking. Just some straightforward lead horn and a fun vocal and that’s all I need. After listening to it, I feel entertained and for Pops, that was mission accomplished.

With a big name like Spencer Williams behind it, it only made sense that the “Georgia Grind” would spread much like “Shake That Thing” had only months earlier. On March 18, Duke Ellington recorded it under the banner of The Washingtonians. Ellington creatively took it at an up tempo but using long meter to keep the same feel of the melody over the double-timing rhythm section. You can hear that version by clicking here. Thomas Morris and His Seven Hot Babies recorded it on July 13 and just eight days later, Jelly Roll Morton accompanied Edmonia Henderson on her version of the tune. After that, “Georgia Grind” kind of disappeared but the lyrics would be used again and again in a hundred incarnations. In April 1928, Henry Williams recorded something called “Georgia Crawl” which “borrowed” more than a little from “Georgia Grind.” It begins with the “Papa, Papa, look at sis” chorus, continues with the “I can shake it east” chorus and even has Pops’s “Come here right now” segment. Blind Willie McTell would also sing about a “Georgia Crawl” in some of his early 30s blues tunes while Coot Grant and Kid Wilson sung about “shaking it east.”

As the years went on, “Georgia Grind” more or less disappeared, only being performed by some European trad bands that remembered the Hot Five record. “Shake That Thing” lived on, though, in both blues and New Orleans jazz circles, though the lyrics often changed. When Kid Ory recorded it for Good Time Jazz in 1954, he opened his vocal by singing, “Mama, mama, look at sis” from “Georgia Grind.” Today, John Brunious of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has made it a feature of his, though he adds in some new lyrics. That might be why the band credits it on one of the C.D. releases as a “Traditional” composition and not one from Papa Charlie Jackson.

But back to our hero, Mr. Armstrong, he wasn’t quite done with “Georgia Grind,” either. When he tackled the massive Autobiography project of 1956 and 1957, “Georgia Grind” was one of the tunes selected for the Hot Five recreations, overseen by Bob Haggart. The performance follows the 1926 original to a tee, though the tempo is a little slower, which I think is an improvement. And I always like to point out that in recreating the Hot Fives and Sevens for the Autobiography, Pops didn’t feel the need to recreate the chunky feel of the original rhythm section. Times had changed and Pops was clearly more comfortable with the All Stars’s swinging feel, augmented by George Van Eps’s smooth electric guitar comping. Pops again plays the intro and one chorus up front, playing a dazzling phrase at the 16 second mark as the I chord turns to the IV. It’s a short burst of velocity that shows that even in his mature style, he was more than capable of the quick flurries that marked his younger playing days.

Velma plays the role of Lil here and it’s a perfect fit. Elsewhere on the Autobiography, Velma had to play the role of the blues queens of the 1920s and though she did a professional job, it wasn’t exactly her forte and as a result, those sides are pretty forgettable (besides some stirring obbligatos from Pops). But “Georgia Grind” was right in her bag and as she sings, Pops can be heard interacting with her, which he didn’t do with Lil in 1926. He answers her lines and even repeats the title phrase after she sings it. It’s really a duet in the true sense of the word. Trummy takes a smooth trombone spot before Pops takes over. His shouting days were pretty much behind him but he still speaks part of his lines and his reading of the phrase “Georgia Grind” is priceless. Pops continues on with his vocal—the “you know one thing” line is still there—while Edmond Hall offers fine support behind him. Hall then takes a hot solo before Pops leads the final rideout chorus. On the original record, he only entered for the last four bars but here he takes a full one. Trummy’s ready to play, entering before Hall’s solo is even finished and Pops sounds very bluesy in his lead playing. The song has such a great feel that I wish they could have jammed a couple of more choruses, but I’ll take what I can get (though Pops does get to stretch out a bit at a similar tempo on the very exciting “Snag It” from the Autobiography).

So regardless of rather you prefer to shake that thing or do the Georgia grind, have a ball, but remember—stay out of the backyard and if I catch you, I’m telling Papa!

(That might be the strangest sentence I’ve ever written.)

Sunday, December 2, 2007

I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None Of My Jelly Roll

Louis Armstrong and The All-Stars
Recorded September 30-October 2, 1958
Track Time 3:59
Written by Clarence Williams and Spencer Williams
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trumbone; Peanuts Hucko, clarinet; Billy Kyle, piano; Mort Herbert, bass; Danny Barcelona, drums
Originally released on Audio Fidelity
Currently available on CD: Satchmo Plays King Oliver was reissued on the Fuel 2000 label.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on a few cheapie compilations

The information listed above refers to the All Stars’s version of this song because that’s where my Itunes shuffle landed, but this entry is going to focus on both of Armstrong’s 1959 recordings of “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll.” It’s one of the odder songs in the Armstrong discography but it looks he never played it before or after, but between August 3 and October 2, 1959 he made two completely different versions with two completely different bands…both featuring two completely different sets of lyrics!

The song “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll” was written by the team of Spencer Williams and Clarence Williams. Though not related, the two became linked in the jazz world for collaborating on tunes like this one and “Royal Garden Blues.” “Jelly Roll” became one of those tunes that no two singers ever sung in exactly the same way. Usually about 80% of it stayed the same but a lot of the little aspects of the lyrics differ when comparing the numerous versions. Mamie Smith might have recorded the first version, waxing it on December 6, 1922. That version is available at the Red Hot Jazz Archive and you can listen to it by clicking here.

Obviously, I don’t have to explain the double entendre-filled meaning of the tune’s lyrics, but Smith sings a verse that at least attempts to make it sound like the song is about a pastry:

Little Willie Green, from New Orleans, a greedy boy was he,
He always wanted a lot of kids just to keep his company
One day his Ma brought him a Jelly Roll, the best cake that was made,
And when the kids began to hang around, then Little Willie said:

From here, Smith sings the chorus and even in this early version, her soulful style results in some different readings of the lyrics, including the very first line:

Now, I ain't gonna give no, nobody none of this jellyroll, I mean my Jelly Roll,
I wouldn't give you a piece of my cake to save your soul!
My Ma told me today,
Yes, she told me when she went away,
She said to be a good boy, she'd bring me a toy,
I am her pride and joy,
Now there ain't no use for you to keep on hanging around,
I love you but I hate to turn you down,
The kids, they won’t behave, my Jelly Roll they crave,
Oh, I know you want it, but you ain't gonna get it,
I ain’t gonna give you none.

For those who know their “Jelly Roll” history, there are some differences towards the end of the chorus from what it would become in later versions. In her second chorus, Smith sings it almost the same exact way except this time, when she gets to the part about the kids not behaving, she adds a new line:

Sweet cookie cake is fine, but it don’t compare with mine.

However, by the time minstrel singer Emmett Miller got around to recording it on January 8, 1929, the famous next-to-last line was in place:

Oh, my Jelly Roll is sweet, and it sure is hard to beat

(To hear the Miller version, click here.)

By the 1930s and 1940s, classic versions of “Jelly Roll” were being recorded by the likes of Sidney Bechet and Eddie Condon (with Pee Wee Russell’s terrific solo), but the song managed to elude Louis Armstrong, though of course, he was no stranger to the music of Spencer Williams and Clarence Williams. However, when the Audio Fidelity label signed Armstrong to make some albums in 1959, he found himself in the unique position of recording the song for both of his first two Audio Fidelity releases. I have already discussed how Armstrong and Audio Fidelity joined forces in my September entry on “Wolverine Blues” so it’s not worth going into that whole story again. The result of it is in August 1959, Armstrong made his first album for the label backed by the popular Dukes of Dixieland. Though this was only a couple of months after Armstrong’s heart episode in Spoleto, Italy, he managed to turn in some thrilling trumpet solos on this first meeting with the Dukes.

“Jelly Roll” is taken at a medium kind of stutting tempo with Dukes trumpeter Frank Assunto taking the lead for the entire first chorus. I’m usually down on two-beat rhythms, but it works here. Pops is almost inaudible, but you can hear him contributing quiet harmonies against Assunto’s strong lead (with a very nice break). Armstrong’s just waiting for his turn in the spotlight to sing a couple of choruses, which he does in his imetiable way:

I ain't gonna give nobody none of my Jelly Roll, Jelly Roll,
I ain’t gonna give you any, not even to save your soul!
My Mama said today,
When she went away,
If I’d be a good boy, she'd bring me a toy,
(Break) Cause I’m Mama’s pride and joy.
Now there ain't no use for you just hanging around,
Oh, I like you but I hate to turn you down,
Now my Jelly Roll is sweet, they say it can’t be beat,
I know you want it, but you can’t have it, I ain’t gonna give you none.

With a triumphant, “Lookie here,” Pops barrells into a second chorus. The rhythm section starts swinging in 4/4 time and Pops really starts to have fun with the lyrics, rephrasing the melody wherever he sees fit. It’s not worth transcribing but I do love the delightfully swinging second break: “Cause my Mama’s, I’m her pride and joy.” Ending with “Take it gizzard,” clarinetist Jerry Fuller steps up to the mike in the role of “gizzard.” He splits a chorus with trombonist Fred Assunto before the joyous rideout with Pops on top for the first half. He overshadows the rest of the group and for his break, contributes an absolutely huge gliss…then disappears! I don’t know if this was in the plan, but Pops steps aside and lets Assunto take over and he really does, getting positively Armstrongian by taking the melody up an octave at one point (it’s one of Assunto’s highpoints of the session). Pops comes back and every jams out the rest of the chorus. After the drum break, Pops demonstrates some incredible endurance, leaping up to a high Bb and simply holding it for the final four bars before ending on a higher D.

The Audio Fidelity recordings were composites, made up of different portions of different takes. Years later, the Chiorscuro label released two albums of alternate takes. Some of them are quite wonderful but the “Jelly Roll” one is nothing special because about 75% of it was used for the master take. The only thing that’s different are the clarinet and trombone solos so unless you’re writing a thesis on Jerry Fuller and Fred Assunto’s complete solos, you’re better off sticking with the master. Pop’s final high Bb is delayed on the alternate, but otherwise everything he plays is just about the same as on the originally issued take. However, here’s some good news: in my “Odds and Ends” column of early November, I mentioned that the Essential Jazz Classics label was planning on releasing the complete Armstrong and Dukes of Dixieland material on a three-C.D. set. Well, though it’s not listed on Amazon or really anywhere else, worldsrecords.com is now officially offering the item ready to ship for the price of $35. I haven’t ordered it but it’s a welcome release as much of this material hasn’t been issued properly since the LP era. Go here for more information: http://www.worldsrecords.com/cgi-bin/storeR.cgi?specific=itemcode&phrase=61757

Just two months after the session with the Dukes, Audio Fidelity invited Pops back to record a tribute to King Oliver, this time with the All Stars as the backing band. From published reports, Pops was the man in charge on this session as many in the band had never heard of some of the songs that were to be recorded. Pops had to teach them the routines and the fact that the final product sounds so good is a testament to the professional nature of the musicians in the All Stars. But I will say that recording “Jelly Roll” again was pretty strange. Perhaps the Audio Fidelity people were just big fans of the song or perhaps Pops thought he could do more with it after the Dukes version. Whatever the reason for rerecording it, it’s a welcome performance.

Pops clearly had a ball blowing with the Dukes but the All Stars were his band so I have a feeling that some of the differences between the two versions might reside with Pops’s suggestions. For one, the tempo is brighter and always, the All Stars swing with a 4/4 feel from note one. The record starts right off with Pops leading the ensemble for a chorus of melody. Though his half-chorus of lead playing and that final high Bb on the Dukes version was pretty spectacular, Pops still didn’t sound like he was in 100% form on that performance, giving Assunto the lion’s share of the lead. On the All Stars date, he sounds in prime form, playing with verve and fluidity throughout the entire opening chorus. Peanuts Hucko is up with the first solo and it’s a very good one. I like Peanuts, though on some of the stuff from the 1959 European tour, he sounds quite bored. He would leave the band appoximately six months later, but he rose to the occasion for this album, turning in many hot solos.

But once again, the highlight is Pops’s vocal. Having recorded it just a few months earlier, he probably felt confidant enough to sing it again. However, after getting through only two lines, his mind goes blank—it’s “Heebie Jeebies” all over again! He keeps his composure, scats brilliantly and even makes up some new lyrics for the ending. Monique Adriaansen and Mel Priddle transcribed this vocal in August 2006 and after finding it on the web, I’ve decided to replicate it here—they even did a pretty good job with the scatting! Here ‘tis:

Yes, I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None o' My Jelly Roll, Jelly Roll
I ain't gonna give nobody none to save the soul
I said Jelly, Jelly Roll
Baba-doo-dit-zoo-zah-zah-zeh
Aw-bah-zit-zou-ah-bah-dabba
Zoo-zee-zit-zoo-ba-by-ooh-zah-zee

Well, jelly roll, jelly roll, jelly roll
Ain't gonna give nobody to save your soul
When you see me walking down the street
Down where the cats all meet
Jelly, Jelly Roll
I ain't gonna give you none!

Hearing Pops’s brain conk out after just two lines is quite funny but he recovers beautifully and that “Walking down the street” line always makes me laugh because it’s so completely improvised. Trummy growls through a full chorus, getting typically good support from the rhythm section. Pops then leads the charge with a real New Orleans-style lead. By that, I mean he plays a lot of melody and doesn’t spend too much time in the upper echelon of his high register. Danny Barcelona takes a drum break and there are short spots for Mort Herbert and Billy Kyle before Pops takes it up for a typical All Stars ending, landing on a final high Bb. It’s a fine performance and clearly Pops must have liked that vocal because it’s one of only two songs that doesn’t survive on another alternate take.

So how do you like your Pops? Do you want the pure powerhouse champion of the Dukes version, holding that hard Bb at the end? Or do you like the more fluid-sounding, improvising New Orleans lead player? Do you like him singing the proper lyrics and rephrasing them in his own fashion? Or do you like him totally neglecting the words and scatting something new on the spot? Do you like him backed by a two-beat Dixieland band or do you like the more “modern” swing of the All Stars? That’s for you to decide as I’ll take Pops any way I can get it. Both of these “Jelly Rolls,” though recorded so close to each other, really couldn’t be more different. Only the genius of Louis Armstrong ties them together and that’s good enough for me.